The Whigs – a hard-hitting indie rock three-piece from Athens, Georgia – was set up for failure. It seemed inevitable that the then-unsigned band Rolling Stone tagged as one of 2006’s “Ten Artists to Watch” would never live up to the tornado of critical hype that engulfed them.
And then drummer Julian Dorio received an “Esky Music Award” from Esquire magazine for his work on The Whigs’ raunchy debut Give ’Em All A Big Fat Lip, and somehow the sinking feeling seemed to deepen. It felt as though this great band would never – could never – be as great as they were repeatedly told they were. Strokes Syndrome. The world waited for their predictable collapse, so often timed with an emerging band’s sophomore effort.
You know the story all too well: talented band makes groundbreaking, no-budget debut; press dry humps the gravy train; record labels follow; huge studio budgets with legendary producer; mediocre, flat sophomore record; band never heard from again. Seems to happen every day.
And then The Whigs made Mission Control.
Yes, they got the lookie-here fancy-pants L.A. studios (Sunset Sound and Sound Factory) and the shiny-hip ring-a-ding producer (Rob Schnapf of Beck, Elliott Smith, etc.) but it’s what they did not do that distinguishes them – and saves them from disaster.
“A lot of times,” says Dorio, settled and articulate, “people get the chance to go to the big studio in L.A. with the big producer and they want to layer on all the stuff that costs money – strings and horns and everything – and really overproduce. We didn’t want to do anything more to these songs than we needed to.
“We made our first record in a University Of Georgia fraternity house with no money – and no air conditioning. We purchased all the basic recording equipment on the Internet, then when we were finished sold it back on eBay for the same amount we paid, if not more.
“And for that record, it’s not like we were trying to make some low-fi thing that sounded like it was recorded in a house. We really like the way that record sounds but that was just a product of what was available to us. This second time around was a very different scenario so we definitely wanted to take advantage of it.”
This is where most bands submit to temptation and abandon the naked innocence that made them who they are for an over-complicated, over-paid, semi-ridiculous caricatured version of themselves. The Whigs are smarter than most bands.
“Working with Rob in L.A. allowed us to simplify everything. We were able to just do basically what we do live, with the goal being to capture our live show in a studio record. And we knew going in that because we were in these studios the drums alone would sound so much more dynamic and three dimensional and would sonically be jumping off the speakers. And with that, the guitar, bass, and drums became enough for these songs. The first record has a lot more going on because we tried to emphasize parts by overdubbing and adding organs and extra guitars. For this record we were able to just hit harder with the main ingredients.”
It paid in spades. Mission Control brings an unmolested power three-piece sound that’s at once simple and involved, driving and artistic. The raw energy is undeniable yet the craftsmanship sharp and expressive. Track after track, it’s brave and honest and purely intentional.
“We set up live and played together,” Dorio recalls, “and that was important for capturing that performance side of the music. We did play to a click most of the time because we felt like that really strengthened the songs. But Rob wasn’t looking for us to be perfectly, robotically in time with that click track. Most of the best takes were when we danced around the click and brought out the best performance.
“I try to treat each song individually and I want to think that the drum parts are part of the song – that they’re hooks. We all play real hard live and we tried not to change how we play once we got in the studio. A lot of the songs we just went in and bashed and had fun and tried not to think about it.”
In fact, producer Rob Schnapf – undoubtedly a musician of few fixed rules – applied one aphorism to the sessions: If you think, you stink. “Rob is a good simplifier. I like to say I keep things as simple as possible, but sometimes a fill here or there gets too busy and we’re better off with something simpler and more memorable.”
Dorio’s innate musical sense seeps through every snare hit, every cymbal crash. He’ll willingly describe a conscious effort to create these addictive, lusciously simple drum parts, but it’s easy to see – and hear – that his musical discernment is at its core instinctual and natural. He is the fine line between too much and just enough, and his band is the ideal showcase for his skill.
“Being in a three-piece definitely gives each of us a lot of space. So it makes each guy more of a lead member, where in a five-piece band maybe the bass and drums are more in the back, generally speaking. And that’s what we like about the three-piece is that it puts more pressure on each of us.
“To me it makes things more fun because you have to find ways to fill the space, without overplaying. When Parker [Gispert, frontman] brings in a new idea I’ll try to play something that works with it but actually works more around it. Rarely can all three of us afford to play the exact same thing, and to me, that’s a lot of fun. It allows for a lot of room to mess around. The scary part is if you abuse that and overplay, it can be really distracting.”